Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Doing Real Work

We're just over half way through a three week stretch when  Red Lane Gardens is open to the public. It's a fairly large (about 800 cultivars) garden specializing in daylillies, and run by my partner Nancy. The cold nights through June have set everything back about three weeks, and an apparently difficult tourism season means business is down by about fifty percent.  There's lots of sweat equity (and labour) in the business so we'll survive, but I do worry about other operations counting on visitors to make their year.

When it comes to weather, and the business of farming, and fishing,  people coming to the garden fall into two distinct camps: those with a direct involvement in primary industries quickly go into a rant about how discouraging and difficult things are. I try (not always successfully) to lay off those that  have no connection to farming or fishing, because I don't want them leaving the garden thinking there's some crazy man claiming the end is near, and we don't ever want to go back there again.

There is a very smart writer from California (I'm trying to find the reference again) who wrote something that helps explain this divide (and something I wish I'd thought of). He said as long as people think their food comes from a supermarket, then they'll do everything they can to defend and support the economic system and structure that puts lots of reasonably priced (often cheap) food on the shelves:  free trade, and corporate concentration in food processing, wholesaling and retailing.  If consumers could really be convinced that food actually comes from farms, then they would be just as determined to defend and support  primary producers, and demand from politicians that rural economies and the environment must be preserved.  I know this argument will sound very simplistic to some,  but I think he's on to something.  The very slick marketing done by food retailers and processors essentially says "Don't  think about where food comes from, just come to this store, or look for this product, and you and your family will be well fed."  Almost everyone now can eat the way only royalty did on those historical dramas we see on TV. It's an extraordinary achievement, but I think one with serious consequences (see months of earlier posts as to why and yeah I'm a crazy guy and I do want you to come back to this blog, so I'll stop).

And here's a piece about food safety that raises lot of questions about this complex food system we live with:

Irradiation and the ‘Ick Factor’

After the E. coli outbreak in Europe last month — which sickened more than 3000 people and killed at least 50 — it was impossible not to think about irradiation. “What if,” I asked myself, “those little fenugreek seeds had been irradiated?” Might there have been fewer deaths, fewer cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (essentially, kidney failure; there were 900), fewer tragic stories?

The answer is “yes.” But it’s not the only question.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli viruses or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.

Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”

There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”

My gut tells me that everyone quoted above is correct; the feelings are different but the information isn’t conflicting. If irradiation were called “cold pasteurization” — as it sometimes is — it wouldn’t have the “ick factor,” and we might be more accepting of it. If we were more accepting of it, it might be less cumbersome and less expensive. But it’s too late for that, and though both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved it for use in specific instances, few people are buying it. (It’s mostly used for spices and a little bit of meat and poultry.)

I don’t believe irradiation is harmful; I do believe it could be beneficial, as beneficial as Mike Osterholm says; at the least it could be a useful tool. (It’s not a panacea; nothing is.) But I doubt we’ll see it used on a large scale; in a world of international trade and 60 zillion approval processes it’s just too tough a nut to crack. People don’t like the sound of it — it’s not going to get re-labeled cold pasteurization — and it’s expensive. (Still, if there were another massive E. coli outbreak here, there could be a groundswell.)

The ironies are that irradiation would be beneficial, not hazardous, and that irradiated food is almost certainly safer than, for example, meat from animals routinely fed antibiotics. But because irradiated food is branded with this “radura” you can — wisely or not — reject it. As — wisely or not — you’d probably reject genetically engineered food were it so labeled. As — wisely or not — you might decide to reject pasteurized milk were you not already used to it.

But take this a step further: Would you reject vegetables with a sprayer icon, one that represented the use of chemical pesticides? Would you reject meat that featured a nice bold CAFO label, telling you how the animals had been treated, or one with a syringe, indicating that they’d been given prophylactic antibiotics? Would knowledge of air miles that food had traveled affect your buying decisions? How about carbon footprint? How much knowledge do you want, or, for that matter, can you handle?

The big question is this: How do we get the safest and most ethical food system possible while adequately feeding ourselves? The answer will come in steps — better regulation and inspection of food production; stricter labor laws; more rigorous testing for pathogens, to name just a few — and eventually those steps may lead to a point where irradiation is unnecessary.

To get to that point we must be fully informed about the issues and decide — through a combination of our shopping patterns and support of regulatory agencies like FDA and USDA — which issues are most important to us. If it were up to me, I’d implement more widespread irradiation; but I’d also embark on a massive overhaul of the food system.

Since neither of these things is about to happen, here’s something a little more practical: let’s support and fully fund — at a piddling $183 million — the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which for the first time begins to really look at safety as food travels from the farm to the table. Only by having an agency regulating every single step of food production, processing and marketing can we approach a system that quickly improves on the one we have now. This would go a long way towards addressing the dangers that irradiation is meant to prevent — and then some.

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